My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords for taking part and being here today, and for the strong support from many more who are unable to be here today. I see from the speakers list that my noble friend Lady Suttie and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, will be taking part, so I know that this debate will not only concern our United Kingdom but will have an international perspective as well. I look forward to all the contributions from noble Lords today. I am grateful, too, to those outside this House, in the other place, in academia and in citizen organisations, who are supporting the Bill. These range from signatories to an open letter in the Times today, right through to the Local Government Association.
The questions we must all ask ourselves are: will our current approach to the constitution of our union be stable and sustainable for the long term; and has our piecemeal approach to reform in recent years been the best way to secure this—indeed, is it secure at all? In looking forward to the Minister’s response, I recall that he answered a question from his noble friend Lord Lexden, whom he said had marked his work when he hired him to the Conservative Research Department. In the debate on the office of the Lord Chancellor on 7 July, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, described a constitutional convention as an,
“obvious means by which coherence could be brought to sets of separate initiatives and the framework created for a new constitutional settlement that would stand the test of time”.—[Official Report, 7/7/15; col. 123.]
I agree with him. In fact, I will struggle to put it better today, so I am hoping that his protégé, the Minister, will do so too and gain good marks for a positive response to this debate.
One of the arguments against a convention is that it is simply the recourse of inaction when political parties cannot agree or do not know how to proceed on policy. Thus a convention may be a long-grass exercise with a veneer of activity. In response to a Question by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, said that Harold Wilson once remarked about royal commissions, “They take minutes and last years”. He is actually reported to have said, “They take minutes and waste years”. We all know that there have been occasions when royal commissions have met because conferences have been convened, but not all of them have secured the delivery of their proposals.
I am not discouraged by the fact that there have been attempts at bringing people together. Rather, I am encouraged by a degree of consistency that suggests that constitutional policy should try to be forged from as wide a consensus as possible. This could be described as “the British way”. The groundwork for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament was done because of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. There have been debates on the balance of powers and responsibility of that Parliament since—I have sought to lead some of them—but its founding was based on wide consensus. It also benefited from agreement at the outset on a clear outcome, and thus sought consensus on how to get here. I will return to this important point later.
First, I will consider where we are today. There is much constitutional activity by this Government, some of which I agree with and some of which I do not. There will be much burning of constitutional calories, but the union will not be fitter as a result. In the recent Labour Party debate, I said that I feel our union is not at ease with itself. I believe that profoundly, and it concerns me. The referendum in Scotland was not just something I had to endure as a supporter of the union; it was a profound and challenging time with consequences that are still unknown. We have been too quick to assume that we know what they are, and we have not acted appropriately. It highlighted how many of us struggled to have a coherent and forward-looking definition of what our union is and what it means to young people and generations to come. We have seen nationalism coming to the fore in all parts of the union. I have spoken about this in the House before on a number of occasions, so I need not rehearse my view this afternoon, but I will return to it briefly before I conclude.
There is a real practical benefit to having a government-sponsored process with full technical assistance from the Treasury, DCLG, the national offices and Secretaries of State and the Cabinet Office to bring together the disparate changes proposed so that they are part of a coherent whole. It was rather telling that in the debate this week on the changes to universal credit, the Minister making the case for the change across the UK was unaware of the fact that the Government’s Scotland Bill, which is before Parliament, proposes the part devolution of that power. He was therefore unable to say how it would work and what a “concurrent” responsibility, which is in the Scotland Bill, means. The tensions over EVEL, the clumsy shorthand for English votes for English laws—or, as I suggest, EVET, English votes for English taxes—highlight the difficulty of a reform in isolation approach.
I am looking forward to my noble friend Lady Randerson’s speech. I suspect her strong Welsh experience and knowledge may form part of her contribution. The same could be said for the human rights agenda and for the proposals for the Welsh Assembly to become a parliament with full powers.
All these areas have recently seen Ministers at the Dispatch Box with the greatest confidence in their approach, only to be followed by pause, delay or retreat because the issues are complex and interrelated and require consideration as a whole. The list is even longer when we add the changes within England, where the approach that the cities Bill is taking has been challenged in this House and is asking more questions than it seems to answer.
We do not have a properly considered view on what powers should permanently be held within the union Government and what naturally should be the remit of the nations and of the regions within England. Neither do we have a properly considered view about the financial powers that could be balanced, and upon what principles across the union that could be done. Indeed, I see that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has a question on the Order Paper about the Government moving ahead in spite of there being no fiscal framework agreed between the Scottish Government and the UK Government.
Within England, the impressive paper on English devolution by the Local Government Association is useful to highlight this issue too. How will the new powers on tax and welfare for Scotland interact with each other, and what role does this place have within the union overall in this changed landscape? How are disputes resolved, and how will the Government work when in many areas it is an English and Welsh Executive who will become almost exclusively an English Executive? Its relationship with Parliament and the other Governments is not forming part of a holistic whole.
These are no longer theoretical questions for cerebral discussion in the academic seminar rooms or the Edinburgh salons. These are questions that we must resolve now, primarily as we are starting from a base of reform in recent years, but which need to be brought together as we are not resolving them satisfactorily by our piecemeal approach. The issue is how we resolve them, not whether they need to be resolved. Would a convention take minutes and waste years? I do not wish us to waste further years on discussing process.
I turn to the substance of the Bill and why I believe that it is a timely, focused and sensible measure that will produce a mechanism to gain wider consensus on a practical way forward for constitutional reform, and will not waste years but take only one. The Bill is already the result of a move to gain cross-party consensus. Its drafting reflects the legacy paper of the All-Party Parliamentary Party on Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution in the UK—yes, I confess that we could have come up with a better title for the all-party group. The group has been generously supported by the Wales Governance Centre and then more recently by the Local Government Association, and my co-chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I are grateful for the input across the parties. The draft terms of reference for a convention and its composition were agreed within this wider group, with considerable external academic support.
Clause 1 outlines the proposal on how the convention would be established. Clause 2 proposes the terms of reference—a narrow list but a broad one, with the issues necessary to be discussed. Clause 3 states that the convention must not take longer than a year—a tight timeframe for some, I know, but equally I believe that it needs to have a focused timeframe. Clause 4 proposes its composition and that it be inclusive, geographically and politically. It also means that the convention must have a majority citizen-led composition. This is because of my strong conviction that the convention will not work if it is simply a lowest-common-denominator agreement between political parties. It must have depth and, if we are defining what the union is and what it offers, we must take stock of the wider view of citizens. There are models for how the citizen component will be constituted, and this will be resolved before regulations in Clause 5 are brought forward. I am pretty convinced that work on how that could be brought about will have been done in government, both before and during the general election, so I look forward to hearing the Minister respond on that point.
So what might a conclusion of a convention be? There needs to be a balance of allowing the convention to take its own form and make its own conclusions but I offer my view that, as I said earlier, minds are focused when a proposed outcome is in mind; joint ownership of that outcome becomes stronger and is more sustainable.
I conclude by suggesting what an outcome could be for the convention. Some years ago I published a cross-party devo-plus paper, arguing for a statement of the new union, outlining in brief terms the necessity of a formal statement of union. I believe that the outcome of the convention should be a royal charter of new union, formed from the citizenry and in the name of the monarch. In many respects, the legacy of her own reign, with her own family, seems secure for generations to come. We cannot say that politicians are offering a similar legacy for the union for generations to come.
A charter of the new union can be a legacy from the head of state who has seen the union in peril from external foe but also from internal angst. Such a charter, perhaps ratified by plebiscite, would also be of a sufficient constitutional standing that it would stand the test of time. It also can act as a complementary statute of the United Kingdom that would be the machinery of government to resolve many of the questions I have raised today about how our multilevel and multisphere Government will operate in the union to come.
Again, I am grateful for the wide support already received, and I sincerely request that the Government retain an open mind, even though I am aware that this is not yet on their agenda: to allow this proposal to develop, to allow citizens’ groups, academics and those within all parties who believe that a process such as this is necessary to come together, and to allow the technical expertise of the Treasury and other departments to assist in that process. Our all-party group will make an exciting announcement next week to show that even wider support is emerging. I am grateful to those who are taking part today, and to those who share my view and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that we seek coherence that will stand the test of time. I beg to move.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the debate, but for the convenience of noble Lords who might have missed the announcement made earlier by my noble friend the Chief Whip, I remind the House that the advisory time for Back-Bench speeches is six minutes.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Purvis on introducing this timely and extremely important Bill.
In recent years I have had the privilege of engaging in democracy and capacity-building training work abroad, in north Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. Almost wherever you go in the world, the UK is held up as a solid and stable democracy, where the mother of parliaments—symbolised by these very buildings—is held in high regard. Judged purely on the basis of the years of democratic stability that we have enjoyed in this country, this reputation is well deserved.
It has been the British way to approach constitutional and political reform in an incremental and ad hoc basis. Our very stability and lack of revolutionary zeal has discouraged us from looking at these issues in the round in an overarching, interconnected package. However, while working abroad in these fledgling or challenged democracies, it always becomes a little more complicated when I am faced with more detailed questions about our British democracy. Countries that look to us as a role model find it more than a little mysterious when I explain that we have no written constitution; have an appointed second Chamber; have an unbalanced and uncodified settlement between the four nations of the United Kingdom; and have a voting system for Westminster elections whereby earlier this year UKIP received 3.9 million votes and only one MP, and the SNP received 95% of MPs in Scotland on 50% of the popular vote—not to mention that we have no fewer than five different electoral voting systems in use in the United Kingdom.
For many years political and constitutional reform has been a subject of minority interest, perhaps favoured in particular by my colleagues on these Benches. However, we have now reached the stage where the Scottish question is no longer just the West Lothian question but is connected to the English question and to the question of the roles of London, Cardiff and Belfast. In addition, following the expenses scandal in the run-up to the 2010 general election, many people have begun to ask profound questions about the quality of our representative democracy. It is testament to the growth of the importance of this subject that a commitment to some form of constitutional convention appeared in four of the UK political parties’ manifestos during the election earlier this year.
Back in 1992 I took part in the rally to campaign for a Scottish Parliament in the Meadows park in Edinburgh along with over 25,000 others. At that time the Scottish Constitutional Convention had been meeting for several years and included people from civil society and the churches, as well as politicians. I remember the great atmosphere at that rally, where I think everyone felt that they were fighting for something historic. The objective of re-establishing a Scottish Parliament was clear, and people were prepared to work across parties and reach out to civil society to achieve this goal.
The trouble with many of the more recent attempts to achieve political reform—this was perhaps particularly true in the last Parliament—is that they have been attempted on an ad hoc basis with a top-down approach. Indeed, in a sense, people have often been presented with the solution to an issue when they have been unaware of there being a problem.
As a Scot living in England, I am all too aware that the elasticity of tolerance towards the Scottish problem has its limits, but I fear that English votes for English laws is yet another example of a stop-gap solution that does not even begin to address the complexity of the subject. Although fixing these problems with yet another layer of “make do” solutions may politically suit nationalist parties on both sides of the border—not least as they are predestined to fail—I argue that dialogue and discussion based on inclusiveness are always going to be preferable to crisis and division. To engage in successful political reform, you have to take people with you.
In conclusion, I believe that a UK-wide constitutional convention is a concept whose time has come. It should be inclusive and, as the Bill sets out, at least 50% of its membership should come from outside the political world. As my noble friend Lord Purvis explained so eloquently, it should aim to tackle all aspects of the constitutional make-up of 21st-century Britain: relations between the four nations, voting reform, voting age, parliamentary democracy and active citizenship. Media, academics, think tanks, unions and religious organisations should all be involved. It is an opportunity to breathe new life into our democracy.
Some might say that if our democratic system is not actually broken, there is no need to fix it, and that people are much more concerned about the economy, jobs, schools and tangible things that affect their everyday lives. However, I fear that if we do not come up with a credible alternative to the seductive but simplistic charms of nationalism, the threat to our union will grow. We will need to take people with us when drawing up proposals for the future democracy of our country. I believe that the convention offers just such an opportunity to breathe new life into our democracy and to meet the challenges of an increasingly globalised world.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I have been on record on a number of occasions as trying to persuade the Government to set up some kind of constitutional convention or body to look at the issues that are threatening our United Kingdom, as the noble Baroness said. However, she will forgive me for pointing out that it was a constitutional convention and the creation of the Scottish Parliament on an asymmetric basis that got us into this mess in the first place. The failure to address both the funding of that Parliament and the West Lothian question is what we are wrestling with now. She will also forgive me for pointing out that in the last Parliament it was the Deputy Prime Minister who was responsible for these piecemeal reforms. We did indeed have a proper referendum on the alternative vote and the British people gave a very clear answer, showing what they thought about electoral reform and retaining our present system.
I am somewhat embarrassed because my heart is with the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in trying to find some way of bringing the parties together to look at these issues as a whole, but I cannot support the Bill. The terms of reference for the convention set out in the Bill are to cover,
“the devolution of legislative and fiscal competence to … Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland … the devolution of legislative and fiscal competence to local authorities within the United Kingdom … the reform of the electoral system … the reform of the House of Lords”—
which we have been discussing for 100 years—
“constitutional matters to be considered in further conventions, and … procedures to govern the consideration and implementation of any future constitutional reforms”.
On top of all that, Clause 3(1) says:
“The convention must publish recommendations within the period of one year”.
It is an impossible task to do all that within one year. It is far too big a menu or agenda and it is not what needs to be focused on now. The current threat is to the United Kingdom and we should limit our considerations to issues concerned with that.
I am also concerned about the composition of this constitutional convention. Clause 4 says:
“The convention must be composed of representatives of the following … registered political parties within the United Kingdom”.
I do not know how many registered political parties there are in the United Kingdom. The clause goes on to include representatives from,
“local authorities ... the nations and regions of the United Kingdom”.
Then it says:
“At least 50% of the members of the convention must not be employed in a role which can reasonably be considered to be political”.
What does that mean? There is no mention of Parliament. These are matters which ultimately must be decided by Parliament, not by anyone else. Of course it is important to have views from outside, but the Bill is going down a wrong track and I do not think that the Government will agree to it.
Yesterday in this House, we had a short debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who, when I was in government, we regarded as second only to God in his authority. He suggested that we ought to have some kind of Joint Committee of both Houses. I believe that there is a Motion on the Order Paper to be debated on Tuesday to that effect. I very much hope that the Government will take on board that idea. I support what noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is trying to achieve, which is some kind of coherence rather than the mess that we are getting into on English votes for English laws, further powers to the Scottish Parliament and the issue of funding. It seems to me that that could be dealt with by a Joint Committee.
I say to my noble friend Lord Bridges that it is perfectly obvious what is going on here. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said it yesterday in his speech. I take the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, at his word in speaking from the Front Bench in answer to a question which I raised: if the Government are not prepared to set up a constitutional convention, he said that the Government did not mind if others did so. Others will do so. The Government and Parliament should continue to hold control of the agenda here, and I believe that a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords could achieve that—not just in the context of EVEL, which I regard as being spelt with an “i” rather than an “e”, because it will do untold damage to both Houses of Parliament and to the United Kingdom itself.
In the debate yesterday, we did not get very far, but I pointed out that at the last minute, the Standing Orders had been amended to include Finance Bills. That is a huge step. That means that a Government would be able to get a large source of their revenue only if they commanded a majority in those parts of the United Kingdom outside Scotland. That is a major constitutional change and not something that can be done by Standing Orders or dismissed by the Front Bench as mere administrative housekeeping in the other place. If we reach a position where both Houses of Parliament can pass legislation but the legislation will fall because one section has not voted for it, we are in real trouble.
I do not for the life of me understand that, when the Government wish to reduce the size of the House of Commons. In the previous House of Commons, the then First Minister in Scotland, now a Member of the other place, Alex Salmond, said that he would accept a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs in return for extra powers for the Scottish Parliament. That has been the form which we have accepted for Northern Ireland for years: when we have had direct rule, they have had more Members of Parliament; when they have had more devolution, they have had fewer Members of Parliament. That is what Gladstone struggled with for 20 years. It was the final conclusion of the Irish home rule deliberations. That seems to me to be a much more sensible approach, which would meet the need to address the concern behind English votes for English laws, the concern about the asymmetry which arises from devolution—but I do not want to pre-empt any Joint Committee. I think that we should have a Joint Committee; it should take evidence; it should be given enough time to consider these matters; and its terms of reference should be narrowly focused on the issues which threaten the United Kingdom at present.
I very much regret that I cannot support the Bill as constituted. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said that at the end of all this the constitutional convention would have a plebiscite. A plebiscite is a referendum. The very last thing we need in these uncertain times is another referendum in Scotland on the issue of the United Kingdom. If this continues for much longer—if we continue to allow the nationalists to create dissidence and disillusion on both sides of the border—I fear that we will be unable to win in a referendum in England on the issue of the United Kingdom.
I hope that my noble friend will respond to the Bill, which is clearly not going to reach the statute book, by acknowledging that the Government need to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider these issues.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on securing time for this Bill—a Bill that, in making provision for a constitutional convention, I am happy to support. I note that a growing consensus is emerging for the constitutional questions that we face to be addressed. To use the terms of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, when he recently addressed the House of Bishops, we are faced with a constitutional building site and no blueprint of what it is we are trying to construct. A convention could at least help provide that blueprint.
It was in 2011-12, when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester served on the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, that we on these Benches first made public calls for a convention. A sizeable number of members of that committee, from across the spectrum, decided that the problem with trying to address as serious an issue as House of Lords reform was that the process was fundamentally flawed, for it sought to address issues of form rather than function. No one had adequately set out for debate the question about what the House of Lords ought to be doing. Naturally, it makes greater sense to settle the question of powers and function before getting into issues of form. That basic question is easily extrapolated into other similar constitutional questions, such as devolution.
Turning to the substance of the Bill, the proposal that 50% of the members of the convention should not be employed in political roles is much to be welcomed. It was a point that the House of Bishops made in its pastoral letter ahead of the election, when we called for the wide involvement of the whole nation and community in discussions about the constitution. To focus equally on those who are not employed in formal political roles argues for strong representation from churches and other faiths as key components of civil society. I wonder whether the Bill might be strengthened by the naming of such groups as being specifically included in a convention. The established church, which has been involved in every constitutional discussion since Magna Carta, would clearly have a locus in any discussion around the future of the constitution. I can confirm the willingness and active desire of the Church of England to be involved in such work.
While welcoming the broader thrust of the Bill, I am cautious about some of its rather ambitious proposals. To seek to make recommendations on such a broad list of issues as the Bill requires is a mammoth task. To do this within 12 calendar months might be considered to be Herculean.
However, there is perhaps a greater problem here. It is widely noted that public trust in our political system and class is at a very low ebb. Much of this is based on the perceived self-interest of political parties and a sense that short-termism that gives political advantage is often a governing factor in proposals for change and reform. If we are adequately to engage the people of this nation in a conversation about the nature of our constitution, this surely is a much bigger challenge to overcome.
In the list of things that a convention would address, this Bill rather assumes that there are things, such as the voting system, that need to be fixed. Such suppositions betray an underlying political conviction, and we ought perhaps to be wary of them. The 2011 referendum on the voting system confirmed as an important part of our democratic system that an MP represents a defined geographical area and is accountable to his or her constituents. A general election is still a collection of 650 local polls with the aggregated result determining the Government. It is not a single national poll, no matter how much our media and political system have portrayed it as such at successive general elections.
So questions about reform need to begin with function, not form, rather than assuming that the voting system needs changing. We should begin with questions about what is important in terms of representation and the nature of the key relationship between those who are represented and those who represent them. The same question about function and form can, as I have suggested, be asked about other areas of the Bill, too.
I turn finally to one thing of which there is no mention in the Bill: the lack of remit to examine the relationship between church and state, or the monarchy’s position in relation to the church. It will not surprise your Lordships to learn that I believe this to be right, and I welcome it. If there were ever an appetite to address these questions, they ought really to be looked at separately. However, I note that one of the terms of reference in the Bill is to look at what ought to be matters for future conventions. I imagine that this could be an entry point to a debate on establishment, should there be pressure so to do. I would therefore be interested in the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in that regard.
While it will be clear that I believe that there are issues with the Bill, its call for a convention to address the constitutional issues we face is nevertheless much to be welcomed.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Purvis on bringing forward this Bill. I have long advocated a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom to bring together the different features of our existing constitution. We have acted in the past with some disregard for the effect of reforms in one of the four nations of the United Kingdom on the rest of the United Kingdom, and I believe that the public are not happy about the current situation. I accept what the right reverend Prelate said about the public being disaffected with our political system.
I regret that a Minister in the Government has said that a constitutional convention is not a priority. I profoundly disagree with that statement. It is the most urgent priority to hold the four nations of this United Kingdom together if we are going to have any influence in the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. It must be the prime objective of a constitutional convention to indicate how the United Kingdom can be kept together.
We have bodies in Parliament which are concerned about this. We had the committee chaired by Graham Allen in the other place; we have the Committee on the Constitution in the House of Lords of which I am a member; and I believe that the unity of the United Kingdom will be a predominant consideration in the thinking and work of this party.
We need to recognise that political decisions should be taken at the level at which they can be effectively taken. That is why we had decentralisation in Scotland. There were certain differences of culture, of law and of ways of thinking which made it appropriate, but we must not let such differences divide the United Kingdom.
If we are to set up a convention, it should have coherence. I am persuaded by the voice of Professor Alan Renwick, of Reading University, who said that it should be governed by reason, not by interests or passion; that it should be inclusive, representing all parts of the United Kingdom; that it should have public legitimacy through seeking evidence from all round the United Kingdom; and that it should have political legitimacy in that the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom should make the final decisions and conclusions.
The reforms that we have made, in which I played some part in the early days of the Blair Government, have been incomplete and uncertain. I advise the Government to think about the effectiveness of the Convention on the Future of Europe—again, a body on which I served in 2002-03—which produced, after much debate, a consensus, much of which has been implemented subsequently in the treaty of Lisbon.
Who sets the agenda? I think that my noble friend’s agenda is probably too long for 12 months. It should be focused on the union. The question of who the convention consults is also important. We need more time if we are to identify the feelings of the citizens of this country. It should be a mixed assembly with a strong element of public participation and representation, including from academia, political parties, civic society and the general public of all of the United Kingdom. The balance between these is still for discussion. The chairman of the convention should be an independent person, perhaps a senior judge or a retired senior judge.
I commend the Bill to the House but it could be amended in ways that would make it more practical.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on launching this important debate. I support the Bill although I share many of the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.
To try to cover the details involved in the time concerned is totally unrealistic. What I and many people want much more is for the Government to take a lead. The Government have failed to see this as an important issue for people across all political parties and of no political party. There is a feeling throughout the United Kingdom that the governmental system is not working for people as it should. Frankly, they are right. That is the value of a constitutional convention.
I am worried that the Government, having won the election, sound arrogant and as though they do not want to listen to others on this issue. Why is it that across the political spectrum—the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and many others—people are shouting out for a lead from the Government other than on English votes for English laws? The reason I worry about this is that all of us who strongly support the union feel that the Government are not taking the threat seriously enough and looking at the depth of it. The fox hunting defeat for the Government should be a real warning. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Nicola Sturgeon, having said a couple of months ago that she would not oppose it because it is an English matter, has suddenly done an about-turn. It was a gift to the Scottish National Party.
I ask the Government to look at the agenda of those who wish to break up the United Kingdom. The SNP lost the referendum, and lost it badly, but that does not mean that it has given up the strategy of winning in the long run. It is using tactics which, among other things, are designed to raise English nationalism, and the Government are playing into that. The danger is that if English nationalism is not part of a constructive whole-United Kingdom role, there will be, not surprisingly, many English people saying, “If the Scots want to go, let them do it. Let’s have a different party structure”. You can see part of that happening within the United Kingdom Independence Party. If UKIP breaks up, I would guess that what will emerge from it is an English national party, and I cannot think of anything more dangerous to the United Kingdom than an SNP and an ENP. We need to address this and the Government must take a lead. I, along with many other people who strongly support the union, do not feel that they are listening. The Government are not talking to all those of us who support the union in the way they need to—and that includes people of no political party.
The right reverend Prelate spoke well on this. There is a widespread feeling that the governmental system is not working, and it is not just about English votes for English laws. One of the key issues to be addressed in this is the nature of devolution. I support devolution, but we need to be clear about what we are devolving and who to. We need to be clear about devolution in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, where we also have to be conscious that any change made there must be made very sensitively, bearing in mind that there are international agreements which are lodged with the United Nations. This is a complex area.
Another thing we need to address in relation to that is, in a way, the core issue, one that is often unspoken and simply assumed: what role do we see for the United Kingdom, having devolved all these powers? I can list a lot of things that I think the United Kingdom should do, but we need to discuss them in relation to the issues which are devolved to the four parts of the United Kingdom and within the four parts. That is the strength of what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is saying, and it is why I do not mind this Bill going forward. It at least provides one way of debating and discussing these matters. I say to the Government that they need to address them.
The issue that matters here is what sort of second Chamber we want. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was saying this, but I agree that simply to reform the House of Lords as part of the structure of the Bill would not work very well. But it is inevitable that, if we are looking at what we devolve to the four regions and what we devolve within the four parts of the United Kingdom, it inevitably raises the question of what sort of second Chamber we want. We do not need to discuss it in terms of all its content, but we need to ask whether the second Chamber is to continue in its present role of primarily revising the work of the House of Commons, or does it in some way represent the four parts of the United Kingdom which will have achieved greater power. It is an important question and I do not have a simple answer.
I say to the Minister with all the passion I can bring to this: I want the United Kingdom to survive. It has been a fantastic achievement and the world admires it, as the noble Baroness said. We will lose it unless we start talking about these issues in depth with everyone, and, more than anything else, we start listening. In this case, it is important for politicians of every party to understand that their ears are infinitely more important than their mouths.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, on bringing forward this Bill. However, like my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I have various difficulties with it. Constitutional change has occurred in recent years on an extensive scale and continues to take place. There are three distinct directions in which we can go in terms of such change. These can be subsumed under the headings of “incoherent”, “measured” and “new”. We have had major changes in recent decades under successive Governments, but each change has been justified on its own terms. There has been no serious attempt to look at the constitution as a constitution and consider what type of constitution we wish to achieve. There has been an intellectual discourse on different approaches to constitutional change but the measures pursued by government have not adhered to any one approach. There has been no intellectually coherent approach adopted by government. As a consequence, our constitution will be the sum of a range of disparate and discrete measures imposed on our existing constitutional arrangements. Without taking action, we will continue on what is an uncharted and potentially dangerous path.
I move from the incoherent to the measured. This is where there is some consideration of how changes fit within our constitutional arrangements. This entails reflection and dialogue, and seeing how existing and proposed changes impact not only on the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom but on how they relate to one another. No reform is exclusive to itself. Hence, my argument, which I have previously developed, for a constitutional convocation, a body that can make sense of where we are and provide some coherent framework for understanding how further changes relate to existing arrangements and to one another. It would provide some shape but without committing us prematurely to some new constitutional settlement.
This brings me to the third direction. This is where we move to a new paradigm, in effect a new constitutional settlement, which may mean a codified constitution. The vehicle that has been variously recommended for delivering this is a constitutional convention, which, to quote Black’s Law Dictionary, is:
“A duly constituted assembly of delegates or representatives of the people of a state or nation for the purpose of framing, revising or amending its constitution”.
The Bill is designed to formulate a new constitutional settlement, or at least a part settlement, for the United Kingdom. The sheer scale of change we have witnessed constitutes an argument against establishing a body that would craft a new constitution before we have had time to understand the consequences of those changes already undertaken or to which the Government are already committed. I want us to make sense of where we are, to understand what principles underpin, or have underpinned, the changes of recent years.
We are frequently reminded of the saying, “If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here”. My point is that not only have we not determined where we are going, we have not even determined exactly where we are. My argument is that we need a much clearer sense of where we are constitutionally, of how the parts of the constitution as it now is hold together, if they do, before attempting to create a new constitutional architecture.
I turn to problems with the Bill on its own terms. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, rather skated over the provisions of the measure. It prescribes a limited number of subjects to be considered initially by the convention. I can understand the reasons for that but the parts of the constitution adumbrated in Clause 2 impact not only on one another but on other parts of the constitution not specified in the clause. It does not provide for an extensive examination of one part of the constitution but neither does it provide for looking at the constitution as a whole.
The provisions for a convention are too imprecise in form. Too much is left to the Secretary of State. The intention of utilising a convention, with at least half not drawn from politics, is presumably to establish some degree of public trust but it is not clear how that will be achieved. How many people will be chosen? How will they be chosen? What qualifications, if any, will they be expected to have? Do we go for ordinary members of the public? If so, will they be chosen by election, by lot or by nomination? Election may be preferable for the purpose of trust but, given that a proportion must not be politicians, on what basis will electors be making a choice? I agree with my noble friend Lord Forsyth and others who have spoken in the debate that the convention is given an essentially impossible timetable. If one is going to take seriously the task of examining thoroughly all the subjects specified in Clause 2, it will not be possible to do it within 12 months.
The Bill shows the problems with trying to create a constitutional convention when one is dealing with an extant constitution. We are not in the situation in which conventions normally find themselves. We have nothing approaching a clean slate or even a moderately clean one. Ours bears the markings of centuries, as well as the rushed and extensive writings of recent years. Trying to make sense of that and where we go imposes a particular burden that cannot be borne lightly or undertaken in haste.
My Lords, the more I listen to and read of the discussions on this topic, the more I am convinced of the enormous importance of what we are discussing—it will determine the future of the United Kingdom—and of the great problems that are faced by a constitutional convention, or, indeed, a convocation. A wide range of subjects will have to be considered by any such body. A piecemeal approach is very likely to lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, an essential part of a convention must be the consideration of the future of this House. The question arises: to whom or to what body will the different regions and countries of this country report? Where will it be represented? To my mind, the most promising model we should look at is the Bundesrat, which represents the different Länder in Germany. A proportion of the upper House depends on population; the representation of the delegations depends on the votes cast in the previous election. That seems a promising result.
Apart from anything else, I do not see how we cannot soon face the problem of the future of this House. The continuous expansion of its numbers makes its operation dysfunctional. Apparently it is going to grow. Unless it is considered as part of an overall settlement, this House will not be able to function properly. It seems to me from this House’s point of view that one has to have a cull of number according either to age, or to length of service. Neither is entirely satisfactory. It must be considered in the wider context, as indeed should be the whole question of the future of representation of different parts of a devolved constitution of this country.
My Lords, I shall speak on the convention in Brussels to which the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, referred, on which he served with distinction. It consisted of 200 individuals from every member state in the European Union and every candidate member state, from every Government and every Parliament. Some came wanting greater centralisation of power; some came wanting repatriation of powers. In practice, like the previous Government in their balance of competencies review, it could not identify any that it would be in the national interest to repatriate.
The convention worked for 18 months and reached its conclusions by consensus. We neither repatriated powers, nor recentralised them. We aimed at stability, entrenching the definitions of powers, making it more difficult to have creeping extensions of competence. We reached conclusions by consensus. For the first six months we did none of the above; we addressed conceptual papers prepared by the secretariat, which I was privileged to lead. The discussion of those papers led the conventionnel to come to understand each other better: to understand where they were coming from, to appreciate what might and what would not be possible. In the second six months, we addressed particular issues. Only in the third six months—although the thing wound up in 17 months—did we look at particular solutions and drafting issues. We reached consensus.
This is what worries me about this Bill. I support the idea of a convention but find the terms of reference in Clause 2 very hard to understand. I think you have to start from the conceptual and the general, and hone in on the particular when you have reached conclusions on the general. But these terms of reference seem to me to go the other way. I greatly admire the Liberal Democrat enthusiasm for localism, but to start with devolution is wrong. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is quite right: you need to consider the countervailing force.
I would like to see us, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, considering the basic issue of the bargain between state and citizen. What is the relationship between the United Kingdom and its citizens? What is the balance of rights and responsibilities? You need to ensure that a balance is struck between empowering the citizen, ensuring that decisions are taken at the closest possible level to him and involving him to the extent that is possible, and not disabling the state so that it remains able to provide the essential state functions which it is in the citizen’s interest are provided centrally, and the democratic control over their provision.
This would be for the convention to explore but I see three categories of state function. I would like to see a narrative develop on the role of the state. What are the functions of the central United Kingdom state? The first is the state’s responsibility for security and stability. We all agree that disaggregated defence makes no sense. The same goes for foreign relations, law and order, monetary stability and the currency. I argue that there needs to be some sort of fiscal flywheel to deal with exogenous external shock. When the oil price halves, the national economy greatly benefits but the economy of north-east Scotland does not. The SNP should be careful what it asks for. Had it now got the full fiscal autonomy it sought, and ostensibly still seeks, it would be in dire fiscal straits.
The second category of central state responsibility must be to ensure, although not necessarily to provide, adequate access to education, healthcare, maternity care, care for the elderly and care for the disabled, to which the citizen of every modern state is entitled.
Thirdly, I believe the citizen has the right to expect that the central state will ensure, although not necessarily itself provide, that, wherever he lives, he enjoys equal access to adequate transport links, energy supply and internet connectivity—a sort of public service obligation provision.
If I am right, a fourth point follows. The per capita cost of providing my second and third categories of state services obviously varies with geography and is highest where population density is lowest. Maintaining roads is costlier in the Grampians than in Godalming. If citizens all have equal rights to such services—and I suggest that they do—the need for a central redistributive fiscal mechanism is clear. In all the countries where I have lived, the centre has supported the periphery. But equally clearly, this redistributive mechanism must operate to empirically determined and weighted criteria. It must not be a historical irrelevance like the Barnett formula.
We need a clear rationale and a system that reflects it. All my four categories of function need discussion from first principles. That, in my view, is where a convention should start. What is the union for and how can the services the union exists to provide for the citizen best be provided? The present situation, where the extent of devolution is determined solely by demand, which can never be fully satisfied without abandoning the union of these islands, is profoundly unsatisfactory. We must stop changing the constitution in sudden lurches, like last September’s extraordinary “vow”, penned by a columnist in the Daily Record, which is not normally seen even as a journal of record; or the Prime Minister’s extraordinary 7 am broadcast: the EVEL broadcast—I spell it with an “e” in this case in deference to the Prime Minister—or the back-of-the envelope solution to the Prime Minister’s question produced by Mr Grayling in the House of Commons this week, which, as a constitutional aberration, is extraordinary in my view. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and with what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said yesterday. This is no way to handle the constitution.
I hope that this House will look very closely at the drafting of the Bill. The principle is absolutely correct but the stability of a planetary system rests on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. As it stands, the Bill suggests that the convention would be about centrifugal forces. I think it also needs to address centripetal forces. The terms of reference should be to find the point of balance and entrench it. When it has been found, the proper handling of issues of devolution—in Clause 2(a) and (b)—will follow; it can be derived from it. Similarly, the parliamentary reform agenda can be derived from it. One needs to start at the beginning. I would drop Clause 2(e), the idea that the convention should draft agendas for future conventions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that the idea of a perpetual Maoist revolution, with perpetual conventions—let alone referenda—is not what we want. What we want is stability. Let us stop endless improvisation. Let us pause and reflect. Let us get it right. By all means, let us have a convention. I strongly support the principle of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis.
My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name on the list. I will detail your Lordships for only a very few moments.
I share many of the reservations that have been expressed about the Bill by those who have already spoken, in particular my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Norton. I believe firmly that a major constitutional event such as is anticipated in the Bill ought to be a public Bill, not a Private Member’s Bill considered on a Friday afternoon towards the end of the term. It should be a major public event, which this Bill most certainly is not.
I will touch briefly on one of the issues contained in the schedule of items to be discussed; namely, House of Lords reform. I ask your Lordships whether House of Lords reform is really best considered and recommended upon by representatives of local government or from the regions, or even from a political party that does not have a representative in either House. I think not. We can explore some of these issues when and if we get to Committee on the Bill, and I shall look forward to taking part in that process.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Purvis for introducing the Bill and enabling us to have a very important discussion. He is leading where the Government seem afraid to follow. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, that this should be a public Bill and it should be a government Bill—but unfortunately that is not being produced.
My party, the Liberal Democrats, supports the concept of the convention. We welcome the provision in the Bill for the wide inclusion of members who are not drawn from political parties. This is essential because of the increased desire of the public to be directly involved in democracy. Conjoined with that is the increased distrust of politicians. Of course politicians will have input into this, but that must be balanced by the views of the general public.
Several noble Lords have raised the issue of timescale. I say to them: yes, it is an ambitious timescale but I think that they would agree that it is very important that there is a timescale and that this is not something that can be drawn out so that it is endless and therefore meaningless.
We spend a lot of time in this House discussing the implications of things for Scotland. As ever, I want to redress the balance by referring to the implications for Wales. Wales has a complex devolution settlement which is intertwined with the settlement as it applies in practice to England—and it is legally complex. The annexe to the Command Paper issued following the St David’s Day agreement this year illustrates that legal complexity. The annexe is based on current powers and annexe B lists 98 different fields for reservation—so if you rewrote the Welsh settlement on a reserved powers model there would be 98 reserved fields. Annexe C also gives the example of road transport. We all think that road transport is devolved to the Welsh Government. In practice, the example as worked through sets out no fewer than 19 areas of reservation within that power. The effect of this is that entirely English laws are very rare.
Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, pointed out in our debate on EVEL that this House could amend England-only legislation to make it UK-wide, which I anticipate would happen frequently. As long as the Barnett formula remains, anything that affects spending decisions in England also affects Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In preparation for this debate, I have been trying to think for several days of legislation that would not have spending implications across the board. Even something such as hunting would have enforcement costs that would have an impact further down the line. So the concept of the Barnett formula—that funding for the individual nations is predicated on political decisions made for England—inevitably has a consequence across the board.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, yesterday gave the example of education. A policy change in England on education which meant a reduction in spending, or even an increase, would inevitably have the same implication for the other countries of the union. That would mean that their Governments would have to change their policies—and this happens constantly—to take account of policy decisions, and hence spending decisions, made in England.
For Wales in particular, there are other ways in which services in the two countries are intertwined because there is a long and porous border. I will take this week’s example of seven-day NHS working in regard to cross-border health services. If a decision is made about such seven-day NHS working in Shrewsbury Hospital, it is of legitimate and direct concern to patients living in Wales whose local hospital is in Shrewsbury. The truth of the matter in that it is easy to talk about these issues as points of principle but very complex to bring them into practice.
The Government’s rushed and amended proposals do not begin to address these issues. Their amended plans are so procedurally complex that they are totally opaque and for democracy to work properly, it has to be transparent. I believe that a convention would bring that transparency. There is wide support from almost all parties, except the Conservatives, for a convention—and even on Conservative Benches there is support for the idea, as we have heard today. Many proudly boast that one of the strengths of the UK constitution is its flexibility because it is unwritten, but the Government should heed the signs. That flexibility or elasticity is being stretched so far that it could snap—a point made by my noble friend Lord Maclennan. The Government must come to terms with the reality of the situation in both Houses in this Parliament and should think seriously about supporting the concept of a convention.
The SNP is in control of a wrecking ball. Northern Ireland is not settling down to democracy as fast as we had once hoped, and Wales has a constant feeling of being disgruntled, because it had a half-baked devolution settlement—which is progressing but is still half-baked—and still has a half-baked funding formula. The Government’s EVEL proposals could entrench those problems even deeper. People in all four nations need to feel that there has been a long, hard look at the situation by an independent and fair-minded convention, and I urge the Government not to be afraid to follow the lead of my noble friend.
I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for an important Bill which, if the Government had any sense, they would fast-track and perhaps even trumpet as their own. Noble Lords have succinctly demonstrated the need for a convention of this sort, as well as the risks of not taking such a way forward. What has happened in Scotland increases the urgency of a cross-party, cross-interest review of constitutional changes. As a European Londoner from Wales, I find that there are similar reasons for proceeding in this way, in addition to the rubbishing of the English votes for English laws proposals that we witnessed in this House yesterday.
In the past, of course, the Conservatives were more than happy for decisions affecting one part of the country to be taken by MPs with no interest whatever in that area. I think that some of the guilty men may even be here. In 1985, they used English votes to abolish the Greater London Council without any safeguarding of the votes of Londoners’ representatives or giving them a double majority. I assume that the Minister would now chide that Government for that oversight. Indeed, with the last Government’s boundary changes, reducing the number of Welsh seats by 10, there was no suggestion of any veto for Welsh MPs. Perhaps the Minister would also chide his predecessors for that oversight. Furthermore, when the statutory instruments implementing those boundary changes go to the Commons, will Welsh MPs be given a double lock over them?
I take the chiding, but does the noble Baroness not recognise that one reason why the Labour Party has been destroyed in Scotland was because it adopted the language of nationalism for years and argued that Conservative Governments did not have a mandate to govern in Scotland because they did not have a majority in Scotland? Should not we learn from that experience that we need to approach these matters on a United Kingdom basis?
I certainly agree with that statement at the end—these are United Kingdom issues. What happens in one place, whether it is with met councils and how they run their transport, affects all of us. Whether we are planning our business or our lives, you cannot take out geographical areas and think that there is no whole UK effect.
It is the same with the Church of England. We were delighted when the Church of England accepted women bishops and delighted when this House changed the order in which they will appear in this House, but surely there is no idea that only English MPs should debate and take an issue on that, because the bishops of Wales and Scotland are not involved. All these things have cross-UK implications.
On the future, there was a helpful publication, as has been mentioned, by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place, called The UK Constitution, which had options for reform. It set out a checklist by which we could judge the desirability of any constitutional change, such as whether it recognised every citizen as a partner in government at local, regional and national level; whether it affirmed that each citizen was entitled to fair and equitable treatment under law; whether it protected and cultivated community identities within the four countries of the union; and whether it protected freedoms of thought, conscience and assembly and peaceful dissent against the encroachment of tyranny. That is different from the list set out by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, but it is a similar approach. There are some basics against which we should measure any constitutional change.
The report also suggested that one way of cherishing but adapting our constitution could be via a standing commission for democracy that would propose constitutional amendments that could be approved by two-thirds of the Members of both Houses. There is little doubt that the UK needs the flexibility for constitutional change to adapt to changed behaviours, assumptions and expectations and, indeed, to changes in technology, as well as to different functions. The last thing we want is the problem the US faces in making changes to its constitution. I am reminded of a wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker last year, which showed bearded 18th-century gentlemen sitting around a table finalising the seven articles of the emerging US constitution, with one of them saying something like, “Now let’s add a final paragraph that no one’s ever allowed to change any of the above”. That is not the way we want to go. We need something different, but we need a process which does not spring just from one governing party at one point in time, nor one that is indifferent to the wishes of the wider body politic, the other parts of our democracy, be they the churches, the judiciary, the political parties or, most of all, the electorate—the citizens whom we all serve.
Happily, we have to hand at least one thought-through proposal for a constitutional convention, which was set out by Vernon Bogdanor in his pamphlet The Crisis of the Constitution. I may not agree that we need a written constitution and, along with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I certainly do not agree that we want more proportional representation, which has been so damaging to elections to the European Parliament, but his case for channelling the democratic spirit and the desire for change into constructive channels based on reason and trumping some single-party brainwave is surely unanswerable. Constitutional change without cross-party agreement is a mischief which brings no credit to the Conservative Party.
There are many issues beyond this Bill. There is the EU referendum and what would happen if the four nations voted in different ways. There is the change in the balance of Executive to MPs with the reduction of seats to 600. There is the Government’s extraordinary proposal to have 50 fewer elected politicians and 100 more unelected politicians. There are coalition or minority Governments, Civil Service reform, elected mayors, how we work in Europe and our relationship with the Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. There is party fragmentation and all it means. There are the proposals for the recall of MPs. These are complicated challenges that face all of us. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, we have to see how they hang together and are part of a whole.
It is not simply the English issue, important as it may be. In his pamphlet, Vernon Bogdanor says that as 533 of the 650 MPs represent England, it is slightly hard to conclude that they are not getting a fair say in the laws which govern their territory with its 85% of the UK’s population. Indeed, he quotes the case against an English Parliament from the 1973 Kilbrandon royal commission and describes EVEL as “incoherent” and “separatist” leading to two systems of government. It also fails to address the question of why English Ministers should not be treated the same way as the proposals for laws, so that certain Ministers would be excluded from certain discussions, given that most Ministers do not make laws but take decisions day by day. The nonsense of that shows the nonsense of what is in front of Parliament at the moment. It is self-evident nonsense, especially from a Conservative Party that, sadly, seems to have lost the word “unionist” from its title.
Very few pieces of legislation divide neatly into geographical areas. For that reason, the Government are talking more about individual clauses than about individual Bills, with added complexity for your Lordships’ House. The proposal will also increase the power of the Executive at the expense of Parliament, since it is the Government who draft Bills and therefore can manipulate whether certain bits might apply to just one part of the union.
Bogdanor’s call for a convention—or convocation, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth—argues that constitutional reform is a process, not an event, with the issues needing to be seen as interconnected rather than separate and discrete. That is why he calls for a UK-wide convention, with popular participation, to consider the constitution as a whole.
Issues of constitutional importance, whether EVEL or Scottish tax-raising powers, have profound implications for our wider democracy and how Parliament operates. There should therefore be time, space and broad participation to consider any proposed legislation, including its effects on other aspects of how we are governed. I think it is clear from what I have said, and from Ed Miliband calling for such a convention in September last year, that we support the Bill. With reference to some of the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Kerr, we would want to finesse this in Committee, but a broad-based and, in particular, a cross-party approach is surely what this country needs.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, not merely on securing this debate on his Bill but also on his considerable and thoughtful contribution to the debates on our constitution over a number of years. In preparation for this debate, I have read a number of his great works on devo-plus. I also read a very interesting lecture given some years back by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, at the British Library. I see in the questions and answers at the end that he said,
“perhaps I should put on record that, if anybody is thinking of having a Constitutional Convention to write a UK Constitution, I am 100 per cent sure that I don’t want the job”.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will take note of that. I thank all those who have spoken in this extremely interesting debate for their thoughtful contributions.
While we may have our differences about the Bill and the matter under discussion today, I hope the debate shows that on all Benches there is a strong wish to ensure that while our constitution will continue to evolve, it does so in a way that safeguards its stability and fairness, the unity of the nation and the sovereignty of Parliament. It is clear that we all agree on the importance of getting constitutional change right. The issue that we are debating today, and which is the Bill in front of us, is not our intent or goal; rather, it is about how we achieve that aim and, specifically, whether a constitutional convention of the kind proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, would help as things stand today. Furthermore, while I disagree with some of what has been said by some noble Lords, obviously I respect the arguments and applaud the passion with which they are made, especially by the noble Lords, Lord Maclennan and Lord Soley. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that in no way would I wish to suggest that the Government are in any shape or form complacent about these matters.
Before I talk about the Bill itself, I should like to take a step back. I believe that the British constitution has proved to be one of the most successful and enduring political structures thanks to its flexibility, its sensitivity and its almost infinite capacity to evolve. That adaptation takes place in response to the ever-changing nature of our society, our economy and the world. The shape of our constitution evolves in parallel with the needs and expectations of the nation and all its constituent parts. I respectfully suggest that a convention established as a static entity with restricted membership, defined terms of reference, limited time and specific recommendations might well fit unnaturally in that context.
Here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that we do not have a revolutionary approach to constitutional change. Lord Hailsham added to the twin pillars of the constitution identified by Dicey—those of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law—a third that he described as,
“derived from its essentially flexible and evolving nature”.
He went on:
“This is our inveterate and, to my mind, highly desirable habit of being governed as much by convention as by the strict letter of the law. That is what makes the importation of foreign conceptions, American or continental, or otherwise alien constitutional language or thinking, into our constitutional debates so questionable. All may be admirable in themselves. But all are foreign to our way of doing things. Both may be admirable fruits, but you cannot graft a pear on a peach”.
I suggest that a constitutional convention of the kind suggested today would be just such a pear and would not graft naturally on to our constitutional tree.
Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth suggested, I, too, am a strong believer in the wisdom and sovereignty of Parliament. People look to your Lordships and the other place to debate, scrutinise and legislate, perhaps particularly so on constitutional matters. For example, I warmly welcome the diligent and thorough work of this House’s Constitution Committee, which is admirably and ably led by my noble friend Lord Lang. Its reports, so rightly held in high esteem in this House and beyond, provide rigorous and perceptive analysis on some of the most complex and significant issues of the day. It is for that committee to decide on its work programme for the future, and I am sure that the Government will give careful consideration to any reports that it issues in this sphere.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth made a very passionate and thoughtful speech. In response to his specific point on a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider all these issues, not just English votes for English laws, I am sure that your Lordships will wish to mull that over; it merits consideration, and I will bring it to the attention of my colleagues and reflect on it myself.
However, it is right that our constitutional programme is set by the democratically expressed voice of the electorate delivered within our parliamentary institutions. Of course we need to heed the views of the electorate. However, I simply pose the question: what would it say about our own faith in the parliamentary process if we were to handle a matter of this magnitude in the way suggested by the Bill? I am not persuaded that such an innovation as that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, would be an improvement on our current constitutional arrangements, which have been developed over centuries and are often the source of envy or inspiration around the world. I fear that it could diminish or negate the proper role of this Chamber and the other place.
Clearly, a number of your Lordships disagree with me. Therefore, my next question is: is there a great appetite for such a convention? Are the guts of the British body politic rumbling and growling with discontent at the lack of a convention? Among some hardened constitutional activists, if I may use that phrase, there is indeed such a gripe, but what about among the general public? I suggest not. That said, there is an appetite for change, and a Government with a mandate to deliver on their commitments to change; not just change as regards devolution and the English question but, for example, change to our human rights laws and to our relationship with Europe.
We are delivering on our pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s renegotiated membership of the EU, which is surely one of the biggest constitutional issues there is, and one that clearly matters to people. Therefore it cannot be argued that the Government wish to stifle public debate about the constitution and how our country is governed. We are more than willing to have that debate and to deliver on our commitments.
Those commitments aim to ensure the continuity and stability of our union and broader constitutional settlement. We are pursuing our policies in accordance with the principles of fairness, respect and opportunity for all. We will govern as one nation to deliver a balanced and strong union, but one that recognises the unique histories and nature of our nations and regions. As Lord Hailsham also once said,
“diversity in unity and unity in diversity are at once the glory and the characteristic of our”,
A constitutional convention risks undermining the role and the place of Parliament, is unnecessary and has no public support. However, to those who want a convention I say: let us use the Bill before us today to consider how it might work in practice. I start by gently reminding the House of our Constitution Committee’s nervousness of skeleton Bills. As recently as last week, when it took evidence from my right honourable friend Oliver Letwin, the committee described such Bills as those which contain few specific provisions and provide significant powers for Ministers to make decisions through regulations. My fear is that the noble Lord may well find that such a description could apply to the Bill, which makes very little provision for the convention that it seeks to establish—perhaps intentionally, to avoid answering some difficult questions —and leaves the Secretary of State to determine much of the detail. Indeed, as skeletons go, the Bill would certainly earn a place in the Natural History Museum.
I turn to the convention’s remit, a point to which a number of noble Lords made reference. I suggest that the electorate have already spoken on the issues outlined in Clause 1 and have given this Government a mandate to address them—on Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. In terms of devolution, for example, only yesterday my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out our plans for Cornwall. Nevertheless, the Bill rather optimistically provides for the convention to give recommendations on all these complex issues, and to do so within a year. As a number of your Lordships have remarked, this is incredibly ambitious. I know that a week is a long time in politics but, with a scope so broad and varied, I wonder whether the Bill risks setting the convention a truly impossible task. While the ambition may be noble, would a convention really be able to come to a meaningful and considered decision about all these topics in just a year? I am reminded of what Professor Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit of University College London, warned when he considered a similar list of constitutional conundrums:
“A convention charged with resolving such a wide range of different issues would face an impossible task. Each issue has proved intractable; in combination they are insuperable”.
Before I leave that point, I want to highlight a matter raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. This convention would spawn a number of other conventions. It would be not the end of the process but the start.
However, let us imagine for a moment that a convention proceeds and helter-skelters down this track. The noble Lord has argued that his proposed convention would run in parallel with the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. I am glad he concedes that, for the priority must be for the Government to deliver on what was promised to the people of Scotland after the referendum and to fulfil the commitment made to the electorate right across England at the general election in May. However, this begs another interesting question. How could a convention usefully engage in a constitutional deliberation in such a dynamic environment in parallel with legislation on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, consideration of proposals for English votes, an EU referendum and a Bill of Rights?
Turning to the composition of the convention, I note that the Bill suggests that the convention must comprise registered parties—a point mentioned by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. He asked how many registered parties there are. I can tell the House that there are 458. Which of these would be invited to the convention? Would the Fancy Dress Party get a look in, or the Birthday Party? What about the Church of the Militant Elvis party or—my favourite—the Grumpy Old Men Political Party?
Who would determine which parties were represented? Would it be the Secretary of State, the convention chair—if, indeed, there is one—or the public? Then there is the reference to local authorities. Which local authorities, and should this be determined on size? Would it be—I ask this with a certain interest—Surrey County Council or Mole Valley District Council, or would we simply be represented by the LGA? Then there is a vague reference to nations and regions of the UK. Would that include members of your Lordships’ House? How many of these representatives would come from England, where most of the population live, and who would choose the regional spread?
That begs another interesting question. Should there be one unified convention or a series of mini-conventions? If just one, how would the voices of each constituent part of the union be fairly heard within that group? Should they have a veto? What if representation from one nation disagreed with that from another? Here, I quote—
My Lords, I entirely agree that there is a need for a union narrative. I believe that this House has heard that many times—perhaps not many times but a number of times—from my noble friend Lord Dunlop and from me. As I said, it should be based on the principles of fairness, balance, proportionality and respect for different parts of the union, and I believe that, as we continue to debate these issues in, for example, the Scottish Bill and other pieces of legislation coming to this House, we will continue to flesh that out.
As I was saying, Alan Trench, a fellow at the Constitution Unit, commented:
“What is vital for Wales is of much less importance in eastern England. To the extent there is a ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘north-east English’ interest in the Union, each of these is different. Trying to set up a convention to resolve these issues without being clear about what the interests of the various groups are, and how they relate to each other, will be impossible”.
Finally, there is an interesting reference to the fact that:
“At least 50% of the members of the convention must not be employed in a role which can reasonably be considered to be political”.
I understand the gist of the clause, but I think that a lawyer would be able to rack up quite large bills contesting its implementation. Those considered political might include trade union workers, pollsters and even journalists, while a seasoned activist with very clear political convictions could be considered an ordinary member of the public just by nature of his or her employment. Who these people are and how they are to be chosen is another potentially contentious issue on which the Bill gives little indication. As the outcome of a convention depends on its members, does it not worry noble Lords that there appears to be significant confusion and inconsistency as to who should participate in this one?
Those points may sound frivolous, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, may say that I am nitpicking, but they reflect a serious flaw, because the debate over who gets to debate these matters would be acrimonious, generating heat not light. As I said, we would need a convention before the convention has begun just to deliberate on all that.
My noble friend has done the easy bit, which is taking apart the Bill. Will he address the point made by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth? What about looking at the way that all these piecemeal reforms hang together and where we are now? What are the Government going to do to provide a lead?
I am sorry to beg to differ with my noble friend, but I believe that we are providing a lead by setting set out our plan in our manifesto and now delivering on that plan. That is the lead for which we got the mandate. I am sorry that we disagree on this point, but we clearly do.
I just want to follow that up, if I may. The noble Lord has done the easy bit of saying what he is against. I understand that. Can he say what he is for? He could perhaps address whether he will consider a committee of the two Houses to look at what the role of the United Kingdom bit should be, because that would help the rest to fall into place.
As I said, this is an idea that my noble friend Lord Forsyth has put forward with great passion and eloquence, and I will certainly take it away to give it further reflection and bring it to the attention of my noble friend the Leader of the House. But I am in no position to make promises from the Dispatch Box here and now. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, says that this is the easy bit, but this is in fact the essence of what we are debating today: the impracticalities and flaws behind such a convention.
Let me conclude by repeating—I am sorry that a number of your Lordships disagree with it—that now is not the time to attempt to delay the constitution’s adaptation in response to the express wishes and needs of the people and communities across the UK. This Government believe that our focus must be on delivering the fair and stable settlement that will ensure the stability and continuity of our uniquely successful constitutional arrangements. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities for constitutional scrutiny and debate. I look forward to benefiting from the insight and experience of all noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, who, as I said, has done so much to contribute to this debate as a whole.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all those who have taken part. If nothing else, I have allowed the Minister to reflect on some contributions about how we may improve how we conduct our business in Parliament. I commend his research in advance of this debate, and I will read Hansard to see whether there is any living flesh on the skeleton that I can take as a positive from his speech. He was also most helpful by clarifying that an amendment proposing the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, as chairman of any convention will not be forthcoming. Whether or not the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is or has ever been a member of the Grumpy Old Men Political Party is for the noble Lord alone—who signals his joy at such a proposition—to say.
There are a couple of aspects of the Minister’s comments on which I hope that he will reflect. He said that the Government have what I may describe as an absolute mandate for their agenda. He is going too far down the line when he defines the mandate for his party in government. The SNP says exactly the same thing about Scotland. Let us at least have some form of wider aspect that there are some other views. Indeed, that is what led the Strathclyde commission, from his own party, to propose the establishment of a committee of all the Parliaments and Assemblies of the UK to carry on such discussions. I think that that was a very constructive and positive proposal—some may argue that it is a better proposal than mine. Nevertheless, both the Strathclyde commission and I come from the position that this process simply cannot stand going forward.
I warmly welcome the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, who put this into the wider context. I am most grateful for that.
As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said, in the absence of this being a public or government Bill, it is incumbent on those of us who believe in the proposition to put it forward and allow Members to scrutinise it, as we will be doing further.
My noble friend Lady Suttie highlighted that it is no longer a West Lothian or Scottish question—it is a union question. As a Liberal, I seem to have secured the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, which I appreciate causes him unease. However, his subsequent comments, in which he poured scorn on my proposals, restored the equilibrium and reassured us both that his head is not following his heart in this regard. He raised the point about a Joint Committee of Parliament. Although I make no comment on that proposal, I do not think it is any longer sufficient that we look only at the procedures in this Parliament. Noble Lords have indicated that this now impacts on other Parliaments in the United Kingdom and other regions.
I will reflect on the comments made by noble Lords. I have sought to address the dilemma—to try to bridge the gap between the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Norton—that we start either from grand principles or from where we are currently going and try to create a road map that we understand. That is a dilemma and I have put forward a proposal at least to put it on the agenda, so that we can perhaps refine and reflect on it in Committee.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that I will reflect on his idea that I have a “little red book” of constitutional reform that will be perpetual reform.
I will not only reflect on the comments of all noble Lords but am also happy to discuss any of their proposals as they seek to amend and improve on the remit, timeframe and composition of the Bill. In the light of that, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 3.07 pm.